Trash-Talking America

I'm tired of Americans disparaging our country. Addressing concerns about our government is critical to maintaining the republic, but I'm bombarded not by criticism, but over-the-top generalizations: "The government cannot agree on an appropriations bill, clear evidence that we've never been this dysfunctional before." "Politics has never been this polarized." "The government can't protect the borders and keep out immigrants who want to destroy our country." "Our president is a dictator." "The country has never been more violent." The litany goes on and on. No solutions: just complaints.

If we bothered to teach our children some American history, citizens would know that our national government has, at times, been much more dysfunctional than it is today. Congress impeached President Andrew Johnson because they disagreed on Reconstruction policy, for example, and after ratifying the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, branches of the federal government supported Jim Crow laws in the states and federal government policies that made these amendments impotent. Talk about dysfunctional. And our politics can be much more polarized than now. In 1798, congressmen Roger Griswold and Matthew Lyon came to blows on the floor of Congress. In 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr killed former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner was nearly beaten to death while he sat at his Senate desk.

Likewise, concerns about immigration are not new. Americans debated immigration issues constantly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as large numbers of Irish, Eastern Europeans, and Asians entered the United States. Presidential power, too, was a concern from the very beginning. Jeffersonian Republicans complained that George Washington and John Adams were too regal, cartoonists portrayed Andrew Jackson as "King Andrew the First," and 100 years later, they portrayed Franklin Roosevelt as a dictator. And America has always been a country of violence. We have seen protestors shot down in the streets, the powerless and unfortunate abused and killed, communities celebrating vigilantism with lynch mobs, and feuds mediated with beatings and murder.

I am not suggesting that the problems and concerns of twenty-first-century Americans are not critical. They are. But grandstanding, posturing, and trash-talking the country is not helping. Everyone yells -- no one listens. If we ever hope to sponsor a productive debate in this country, we will have to spend as much time listening as we do talking.

Why can't citizens understand that America is, at its very heart and soul, a vibrant and dynamic Great Debate? We all believe in the same core American values. They are encoded in the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and a wealth of other founding documents. We believe in the freedom of the individual. We believe with hard work we create equality of opportunity. Americans believe in the unity of our nation and at the same time celebrate the strength of our regional, ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity. We believe that with work and ingenuity we create private wealth and we evaluate ourselves by its measures: economic resources, education, and social status. And we understand that every community requires common wealth -- common resources -- to be successful. We build that common infrastructure -- legal systems, roads, schools, houses of worship, and more -- together. We believe in the rule of law. We also understand the importance of ethics, the moral principles upon which we measure ourselves, our communities, and our nation.

America is founded on these ideals. Generations of American citizens worked together to fulfill these ideals. Our generation should do no less. The Idea of America and the Great Debate define our common values. American citizens launched this debate with the American Revolution. These founding citizens could not fulfill the promise of the Enlightenment ideals on which they founded a nation. America's founding ideals are lofty. They are about the promise. They are about the future. Every generation since has struggled to fulfill that founding promise. We should too.

Fulfilling that promise, though, takes more than complaining. It takes hard work. It requires investigating and understanding the perspectives of citizens with whom we disagree. It means searching behind partisan rhetoric for positions supported by evidence. It means weighing contradictory evidence and establishing our own independent positions on the issues. Engaging in the Great Debate is hard work. We, like previous generations of citizens, will fall short. But we are Americans, and it is our responsibility -- each and every one of us, on each and every day--to engage in a civil conversation, a civic conversation, about the critical issues that face us. We the People -- citizens of the republic -- are responsible for the fate of The Idea of America. It's time to shoulder that responsibility.